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ABC News apologizes for ‘serious error’ in Trump report and suspends Brian Ross for four weeks

Brian Ross speaks on “Good Morning America” in 2015. (Fred Lee/ABC, via AP)

President Trump on Sunday morning lashed out at ABC News, two days after an erroneous report by investigative journalist Brian Ross involving the president.

Ross had incorrectly reported Friday that during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump had directed Michael Flynn to make contact with Russian officials before the election.

Later that night, Ross read a “clarification” on “ABC World News Tonight,” saying Trump had actually asked Flynn to make contact with Russia after the election, when he was president-elect.

Flynn, who briefly served as Trump’s national security adviser after the election, pleaded guilty Friday to lying to the FBI about his contacts with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

The Washington Post's Amber Phillips discusses what likely caused Michael Flynn to flip on his old boss. (Video: Jason Aldag, Amber Phillips/The Washington Post)

ABC News apologized for the mistake Saturday and issued a full correction. The network also suspended Ross for four weeks without pay, effective immediately.

On Twitter Saturday night, Trump initially offered his “congratulations” to ABC News for “suspending Ross for his horrendously inaccurate and dishonest report on the Russia, Russia, Russia Witch Hunt.”

Many Trump supporters, including the president’s adult children, accused Ross of propagating “fake news” and linked his report to the Dow Jones industrial average dropping 350 points.

On Sunday, the president took aim at the network itself, calling for those affected by the stock market tumble to “consider hiring a lawyer and suing ABC for the damages this bad reporting has caused.”

The network had “broken” Ross’s report Friday with a tweet that read: “JUST IN: @BrianRoss on @ABC News Special Report: Michael Flynn promised ‘full cooperation to the Mueller team’ and is prepared to testify that as a candidate, Donald Trump ‘directed him to make contact with the Russians.’ ”

The tweet, which has since been deleted, included a link to a story and a photo. It was shared and liked tens of thousands of times before it was removed.

Later Friday night, ABC issued a “clarification,” in the form of a new tweet and Ross’s on-air appearance on “World News Tonight” with host David Muir. The subsequent tweet, which has also since been deleted, read: “CLARIFICATION of ABC News Special Report: Flynn prepared to testify that President-elect Donald Trump directed him to make contact with the Russians *during the transition* — initially as a way to work together to fight ISIS in Syria, confidant now says.”

ABC News was widely panned, even by those in the media industry, for its bungled handling of Ross’s error. Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer called the network’s “clarification” a “cop out and just another reason for the decline in trust of the media.”

Several lamented that ABC had given ammunition to those who have long accused the mainstream media of being “fake news.”

“This is not a ‘clarification,’ this is a huge effing difference,” BBC senior reporter Anthony Zucher said on Twitter. The clarification also “took hours to do,” noted CNN reporter Andrew Kaczynski.

It wasn’t until late Saturday afternoon that ABC issued a full correction and characterized Ross’s mistake as a “serious error.”

“We deeply regret and apologize for the serious error we made yesterday. The reporting conveyed by Brian Ross during the special report had not been fully vetted through our editorial standards process,” ABC News said in a statement. “As a result of our continued reporting over the next several hours ultimately we determined the information was wrong and we corrected the mistake on air and online.”

The statement continued: “It is vital we get the story right and retain the trust we have built with our audience — these are our core principles. We fell far short of that yesterday.”

Ross said he accepted the disciplinary action.

“My job is to hold people accountable and that’s why I agree with being held accountable myself,” he tweeted Saturday.

Ross has worked for ABC News for more than two decades, joining the network in 1994 and reporting for such shows as “20/20” and “Good Morning America.” According to his bio on ABC’s website, Ross has won numerous journalism awards over the years, “including seven duPont-Columbia Awards, six Peabody Awards, six Polk Awards, 16 Emmys, five awards from the Overseas Press Club, and five Edward R. Murrow Awards and many more.”

However, Ross also has racked up several notable corrections in his career. In 2012, after a mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., he incorrectly reported that the suspect was a local tea-party leader with the same name as the actual shooter. He later retracted the report.

“ABC News and Brian Ross apologize for the mistake, and for disseminating that information before it was properly vetted,” an editor’s note on the online story reads.

In its coverage of Ross’s misreporting on the Colorado shooting, Politico recalled that he had also incorrectly reported in 2006 that the FBI was investigating House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) on suspicion of bribery. The Justice Department denied the story then. In 2015, Hastert was charged with breaking federal banking laws and pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in a hush-money case.

In 2001, Ross also erroneously linked anthrax used in attacks in Washington and New York with Iraq and its leader at the time, Saddam Hussein. Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer confirmed Sunday that he had told ABC News then not to air the incorrect story, but that Ross had done so anyway. ABC later acknowledged the mistake and retracted the reports.

Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty on Dec. 1 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Paul Farhi contributed to this report.

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